Much like other countries in Africa, although Uganda seems to have been largely spared from some of the worst effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, there are concerns that this is only because the virus reached the continent later than other areas of the world. Accordingly, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned Uganda, along with other African countries, that they must use this time to prepare and put measures in place to protect their populations. While President Yoweri Museveni seemingly heeded this warning, quickly placing the country under lockdown and adopting social distancing measures, questions have been raised about the motivations behind such decisions.
Although Ugandan authorities have previously received praise for their approach to other epidemics, such as HIV and Ebola, concerns have been raised about their response to Covid-19. Very little has been done to improve the capacity of already underfunded and understaffed medical facilities and, therefore, many Ugandans are troubled by the prospect of a widespread outbreak. Fears have been expressed about the country’s lack of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), ambulances and intensive care units. According to a prominent Ugandan epidemiologist, the country could be on the verge of “a major national tragedy”, unless more is done to improve the capacity of Uganda’s healthcare services.
However, it appears that bolstering such services has not been at the forefront of the government’s strategy. Rather, Museveni has decided to focus on restrictions to the movement and congregation of people; a strategy which is unsurprising to those that belong to Uganda’s opposition parties, who have become accustomed to Museveni’s dictatorial style of government. While similar measures have been seen elsewhere across the world, the imposition of Uganda’s lockdown has been marred by the security forces’ apparent willingness to use violence to enforce the new measures.
Reports of police brutality are commonplace in Kampala and, unlike in other countries, the government has neither the capacity nor desire to provide financial compensation to businesses and workers affected by the lockdown. For many Ugandans, this gives them little choice but to disobey government measures to try to earn a living. This has been seen in Kampala, where there have been reports of market sellers, including elderly women, being attacked by security forces for trying to sell their goods.
While these challenges are not unique to Uganda, the government’s willingness to adopt such techniques of repression, combined with its apparent failure to improve the country’s healthcare capacity, is leading to widespread frustration. And the longer the lockdown continues, the more this will build, increasing the potential for social unrest, particularly in Kampala. The opposition, although currently divided, may yet be able to exploit this frustration and mount a serious challenge to Museveni’s authority, as measures are finally lifted.
This article originally featured in Africa Integrity’s April 2020 Newsletter. To join our newsletter mailing list, please contact us.